From *The Skeptical Review*, 1993 /July-August:
by Farrell Till
by Farrell Till
A question we are frequently asked is, "Why are you doing this?" By "this," the questioners mean evangelical skepticism, so what they are asking is why we spend so much time promoting freethought philosophy and especially rationalistic approaches to biblical interpretation. The question implies that we are doing something wrong or at least something that we are not entitled to do. Christians can publish papers, preach their religious beliefs over the airwaves, go door to door trying to convert the unchurched, and maintain a high profile in the community through various other evangelical activities, and no one wonders why they are doing this or questions their right to do it. However, if an atheist or an agnostic attempts to promote his philosophical views, his motives are impugned, and he is viewed with suspicion and branded a troublemaker.
Why are we evangelical about our skepticism? There is no simple answer to the question. A skeptic may be evangelical in his attitude for several reasons, not the least of which would be the value that he puts on truth. If there is intrinsic value in truth--and we believe there is--any truth that the skeptic may know should be shared with others. If he keeps it to himself, he denies others the benefits of it. If one knows a medical truth but chooses to keep it to himself, his morality is suspect. We are where we are today, scientifically and technologically, because those who discovered truth shared it with the societies they lived in. Where would we be today if this had not been done?
We should treat religious and philosophical truth no differently. If the truth is that the god concept is nothing more than wishful thinking, mankind can only benefit from confronting this reality and dealing with it accordingly. Although we try to convince people that the Bible is in no sense the "inspired word of God," we do recognize that some excellent philosophical information can be found in the Bible. One such example is a statement attributed to Jesus: "You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free" (Jn. 8:32). The fact that this is a biblical quotation doesn't mean that it is unworthy of the skeptic's consideration. A true skeptic would advise readers of the Bible to accept the value of anything in it that makes good philosophical sense, and this statement certainly does. The principle stated in it is the foundation of modern psychotheraphy. It recognizes that the psychologically disturbed individual begins his journey to recovery when he confronts the truth about the problems troubling him.
Surely no one can deny that religion is the source of much psychological and social distress in our society. Anyone inclined to dispute this should think a moment about what happened earlier this year at Waco, Texas, and in similar episodes most of us can remember. If truth is that the Bible is in no sense the inspired word of God but only another book among many books purporting to be divine in origin, then think for just a moment about what happened at Waco. All of those people died for a belief that wasn't true. How much better off would they be had they been exposed during their formative years to ideas like those we publish in The Skeptical Review rather than to the radical biblical views that led them down a road to destruction? If we are right in what we say about the Bible, those people all died for nothing--absolutely nothing! Isn't the possibility that this is exactly what happened adequate justification for our doing what we are doing here at The Skeptical Review? If our position is the truth, we should openly declare it to give others the opportunity to set themselves free of an erroneous belief.
If reality is that life on earth is the result of evolutionary processes rather than special creation, wouldn't human beings be better off by accepting that truth rather than clinging to the belief that we were made in the image of God? If evolution is truth, what is to be gained by investing our energy and resources into maintaining churches and temples consecrated to deities that don't exist? If no saviors have been sent into the world to redeem us from our sins, then what is the value in putting so much time and effort into propagating a belief that isn't true? The truth is that if The Skeptical Review is right in its position, immeasurable harm has been done to mankind by the very thing that we oppose. Many schools in our nation have problems caused by widespread belief in outdated biblical views that few reputable Bible scholars would agree with. Science courses have been watered down by education boards and teachers who fear that teaching evolution may offend those in their communities who believe in creationism. Almost all efforts to put sex education into our school curriculums are opposed by Christian fundamentalists with simplistic ideas about teaching old-fashioned, biblical morality in societies that are as different from the cultures that produced the Bible as daylight from dark. Here again is the matter of evolution versus creationism. If evolution is reality, then the truth is that the sex drive in our nation's youth is a mechanism that has evolved through eons of natural selection to insure the survival of our species. In the face of that truth, one can preach abstinence until doom's day, and it will not change the fact that sex is a powerful natural urge more apt to follow natural impulses than idealistic sermonizing. If the controversy continues to rage, a lot of ruined lives will no doubt be left in its wake, because adolescents were denied knowledge that may have equipped them to make informed decisions about the role that sex plays in human lives.
Bibliolaters delight in throwing at us some variation of Pascal's wager. "If we are right and you are wrong, what then?" Well, what is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander, so we also have the right to ask, "What if we are right and you are wrong?" If that should be the case, the damage that religion has done to mankind becomes impossible to assess. All of the charitable work ever done in the name of religion would not be enough to compensate for that damage. So if it is possible that the god concept on which religions and holy books are based is wrong, the skeptic should feel no need to apologize for urging a rational examination of that concept. In our society, the Bible more than any other single factor is the offshoot of the god concept that obviously exercises the most influence on our way of life. As long as that is so, we have every right to demand that those who seem determined to make the Bible an authoritative standard in our society prove their claim that the Bible is the inerrant, inspired word of God, because that claim is the only possible rationale they have for their Bible-based political agenda. Without it, there is no reason why a society should concern itself with biblical precepts any more than Koranic or Vedic precepts.
If, as we have noted, the truth will make one free, being a part of the process that leads to discovery of truth can be personally gratifying. We receive many letters from people asking for help in their struggle to break free of Bible fundamentalism. (If you are thinking that if they want to be free of it, they should just declare themselves free of it, then obviously you have never been a Bible fundamentalist, at least not the born-again kind.) Such letters delight us, and we spare no effort seeing that the writers get the help they are asking for.
Just this summer, we received a letter from a young lady in North Carolina, who at the age of 24 had just come to the realization that the fundamentalist beliefs she had been reared in are erroneous. Her letter described a familiar process of gradualism in her discovery of truths that will, we hope, eventually set her free. First, she was bothered with the second-class status that the Bible accords women, and this had produced serious doubts in her mind about the religious instruction she had received while growing up. Then, rather ironically, a TV program intended to promote Bible fundamentalism backfired on the producers as far as this young lady was concerned. This is how she described the experience.
Then, early this year, CBS TV did a special about Noah's ark. When I saw the advertisement, I rushed to record it. After all, they were going to show pictures of the ark!!! For two hours, I waited and waited and waited, bored to death of hearing second-hand stories of people who had supposedly seen the ark. After all, if they had photos of it, then these stories were not needed. But, after two hours, the best they had was some half-rate satellite imagery photo, which was not proof to me. I mean, if they can take photos of planets many millions of miles away, then most surely they could take a photo of something right here on earth. CBS was trying to help assure the faithful of God, but, ironically, their efforts only served to drive me farther from belief.The next stage in her transition was predictable: she began to investigate the other side. In her investigation, she read books about philosophy, ancient history, the mystery religions, and even evolution. Anyone who has ever gone through the transition from Bible fundamentalist to skeptic could, without even reading the rest of her letter, guess what happened, because her story is a familiar one. Once the mind of a religious fundamentalist is objectively opened to other ideas, dramatic changes in thinking will begin to occur. This happened in her case when her studies led to a book familiar to most skeptics, The Bible Handbook. Her letter described her reaction to it:
But when I read page one of The Bible Handbook, I felt like a ton of bricks were hanging over my head. I read for hours, until the sun rose, and a thousand thoughts were going through my mind. Those many religious preachers screaming their threats of how I must be saved, lest I burn in hellfire, but I saw it was not so, that, in fact, it is them who lacks the truth....
These first 24 hours were painful hours. So many conflicting thoughts and anger for being lied to all these years of my life. Being taught that if I live my life in a certain way, that I will inherit an eternal life in paradise, and then seeing the hundreds of biblical contradictions. It blew that delusion of grandeur away.In this young woman's case, she had a brother who had already rejected the fundamentalist religion he and his siblings had been reared in, so she had the advantage of having someone close that she could talk to. She said that in conversations with her brother, she couldn't help laughing in her dismay about "how all these years, all the many religions fight among themselves, about who had the true religion, and it only turns out that the one they all oppose is actually the truth of truths. The atheists, of course."
So why do we do it? Why are we so evangelical about our skepticism? The answer is simple. There are many people trapped in the throes of Bible fundamentalism who with help can find their way out of it, as this young woman has done. As long as this is so, we will continue to put our philosophical views into the free market of ideas and let the shoppers decide if they want to buy them. Our contention is that we have a better product than the shoddy commodity being peddled by Bible fundamentalists. From personal experience and the testimony of others, we know that a message in this young woman's letter is true: If you abandon superstition and face reality, you will be a happier person. So what is so wrong about helping people be happy?